Trekking Gear

Gear for Two

Gear for Two

Gear for a three-week trip, most of it trekking, was a little overwhelming. We were headed for high altitude = cold weather. Living on the temperate California coast, we needed to stock up on layers for 18 days of living outdoors at 12,000+ feet elevations.

The list was long, but in the end there was very little that we brought that we didn’t use. The key was layers. Hiking uphill was sweaty work, while hiking downhill not so much. It might rain (it did), it might snow (it did).

Here are a few notes, and what we packed.

Gear recommendations

Seattle Sports Roll Top Waterproof Duffel Bag: 28″ x 14″ accommodates 4310 cubic inches of stuff. A good size that contained our sleeping bags, clothing, toiletries, books, and extra shoes. Our duffel bags were loaded into burlap sacks and transported on the horses and donkeys daily. Having something sturdy and waterproof was important, especially in rain and damp environs. (Looks like Seattle Sports is discontinuing this particular model, but there are other comparable gear out there.)

PrAna pants: Halle for women, Zion for men. The bit of stretch in these pants just makes all of uphill and downhill hiking easier. They wore well, resisted stains, and dried relatively quickly after a swishing in a glacial stream. Looked good in town, too. Hard to find on sale, but worth every penny you pay.

Rab Neutrino Endurance jacket for women. Bought greatly discounted last year’s colors for both ladies on the trip. Longer in the back, a cozy hood makes an all around toasty jacket. Comes with its own stuff sack, which helped keep it contained in our cavernous duffel bags. A key jacket for nights and mornings in camp.

Cocoon sleeping bag liner: silk. Keeps your sleeping bag cleaner, and adds a few degrees of warmth.

Gear List

Bag for trekking kit (Sierra Sports duffel)
Daypack with waterproof cover
Sleeping bag (3 or 4 season bag)Silk liner
Pillow case (stuff with fleece and down clothing for pillow)
Trekking pants (2 pairs)
Fleece lined pants (1 pair)
Fleece tights (2 pairs)
Short sleeved performance shirts (2 for base layer)
Long sleeved performance shirts (3, different weights)
Fleece shirt/jacket (heavier weights than above shirts)
Down sweater
Windproof/windstopper jacket
Waterproof jacket
Waterproof pants
Scarf/buff/neck gaiter
Gloves and mittens (yes, you need both)
Hiking boots
Camp shoes
Hiking socks (varying thicknesses – your feet may swell)
Gaiters (for rain, mud, snow)
Brimmed hat
Warm hat
Bathing suit
Polarizing sunglasses
Nylon line (for clothesline)
Small knife
Water bottle (refillable)
Camp towel
Biodegradable soap
Sunscreen/lip balm
Insect repellant
Small roll of toilet paper
Journal and pen/pencil
Small first aid kit
Regular medications you take
Glasses and spares (if you wear)
Spare batteries
Energy snacks
Water purification tools (Steripen, tablets, filter)
Ziplocks (helps to organize duffel contents)
All-in-one tool
Waterproof matches
Field guides
Books, playing cards, other diversions

We never used the earplugs: although most blogs complained about barking dogs, we were not bothered. We also never used the Steripen: the trekking staff always boiled water, and the hotels all offered bottled water.


On Our Way

Ready to carry us to Tokyo

Ready to carry us to Tokyo

We’re here: 14 months of serious planning, shopping and training has landed us in the international terminal at SFO. We’ve got our passports, visas and rabies shots, ready for the little country of Bhutan, with many great unknowns for us. You can only read guide books and travel blogs for so long, or ask only so many questions…and still not really have a clue what is ahead.

Our next 24+ hours will be in the netherworld of air travel: a little over 11 hours from San Francisco to Tokyo, about 3 hours layover, then about 7 1/2 hours from Tokyo to Bangkok. Then it’s 8 hours in the Bangkok airport before we take off for Paro, via Daka: another 4 1/2 hours or so, depending on the length of the stopover. For our daughter, leaving from Newark will add another three hours to her travel time.

Because DrukAir does not have arrangements with other airlines, we must collect our bags in Bangkok and transit through immigration, to circle back into the airport in search of food and a quiet bench for napping. We managed to minimize our checked bags to one duffle, by carrying our sleeping bags and boots with the rest of our clothing and toiletries in our carry-on luggage. In the one checked duffle we have crammed in the other two empty duffles, a month’s supply of granola bars for three (or more) people, 3 Thermarest pads, our travel pharmacy, spare batteries, and other miscellaneous items frowned¬† upon by TSA. Like Swiss army knives.

Checking in at DrukAir also meant checking in all but our small carry-on bags. We had to trust that they would not get lost between Bangkok and Paro since adequate sleeping bags and our broken-in boots would not be replaceable in Bhutan. Miraculously, we were still within the DrukAir baggage weight limits. And, we were able to get seats on the left side of the plane, with views of Everest above the clouds.

Everest from inbound flight to Paro

Everest from inbound flight to Paro

What We Did Not Plan

Again and again, we have learned that carefully choosing a tour company/booking agent that “gets” you is the single greatest way to be sure that you have the trip you hope for…and then more. We did not do any research or make any requests regarding lodging or restaurants or food, and we trusted the tour company to match us to a suitable guide. As a result, we had a remarkable journey, full of unexpected beauty and warmth and insight. Oh, and we ate well, too.

Besides, it’s not an adventure if you plan every step of the way.

Other Bits of the Trip Planning

Prayer Flags to Tiger's Lair

Prayer Flags to Tiger’s Lair

Once we had settled on the trek itself, the other details fell into place.  The biggest other piece of planning was finding affordable and workable flights to and from our gateway city. At the time, there was only one airline, DrukAir, that flew in and out of Bhutan. The schedule changed from season to season to match the weather and the visitor load. And, while they flew in and out of several cities, the most availability was in and out of Bangkok. We were able to find round trip airfares from SFO to BKK for under $1000, while the airfare for our daughter, traveling from New York, was a few hundred dollars higher.We managed to book our flights on United (with code share partner ANA) so that we all arrived in Tokyo within an hour of each other, and were able to travel together the rest of the way to Bhutan.

Perhaps the most challenging part of our air travel planning was that we would be forced to spend hours overnight in Bangkok both ways. Given the great potential for flight delays getting in and out of Paro, due to weather, etc., this buffer is good to have in place. The Paro airport lies along the valley floor, and covers a large part of real estate surrounded by steep mountainsides. The landing there is nothing much like we had previously experienced on commercial airlines. Watch a landing from the cockpit here on YouTube.

Given our arrival at BKK at 11:30pm local time, and the DrukAir ticket counter opening time of 5:00am the next morning, we opted to do what many did: slept a few hours in the airport. We found the second level, which has the restaurants and health clinic, has convenient benches tucked into relatively darker and quieter parts of the corridor. Although we were simultaneously jetlag-tired and keyed-up for the adventure ahead, we found adjoining benches to catch a few hours sleep.

Everest from inbound flight to Paro

Everest from inbound flight to Paro

There is a real reason to make sure that you are down at the ticket counter before the 5:00am opening. Your seats are not assigned until you check in for your flight. So, you want to be smiling and pleasant and kindly request seats on the left side of the aircraft (or right side if you are outbound from Paro). With clear skies, you get a spectacular view of the Himalaya crest above the clouds, including Mount Everest. We scored great seats.

In mid-2014, a second airline, Bhutan Airlines, began service in and out of Paro. We had the option to make minor adjustments to our flight plans and budget, but we stayed with the DrukAir reservation originally made by Blue Poppy agents.

On our return flight out of Paro, we had a late morning departure scheduled. Taking advantage of the longer layover, we opted to book a dinner cruise in Bangkok proper, and a night in the airport hotel. However, our original departure had been cancelled, and we were booked on a mid-afternoon flight to Bangkok. The flight departure was delayed, and we had a stopover in India; by the time we had claimed our bags and caught the shuttle to the hotel, it was about 10:30pm. The hotel had lost/confused our reservations, and it was 11:30pm before we plopped ourselves in bed. Up again by 4:30am to catch the shuttle back to the airport for our 7am flight back to Tokyo. While the hotel expense was marginally worth it, having the extra hours to allow for delays were priceless.

Planning Our Trek

Approaching Sinche La

Approaching Sinche La

There were so many decisions to make, and there were so many unknowns. We knew that we wanted to spend the majority of our time on trek – this was our first visit to the Himalaya, and we wanted to be in the Himalaya. We poured over the treks book, reading and considering each one. Some treks were too short, or too long, or too strenuous, or not up in the mountains, but they all had features that were attractive. We were bound by the number of our paid vacation days, and we did want to experience some of the culture in towns and villages. We thought that perhaps we should string together two shorter treks, but we kept coming back to the Jomohari-Laya-Gasa trek. This trek was in the mountains, with stops in villages, and we had the sense that it was the trek less traveled, once leaving Jomolhari base camp. It’s listed as strenuous, but we didn’t really have a gauge of what that meant…other than we needed be serious about training to be in shape for the trip.

Blue Poppy Treks and Tours made an intriguing suggestion: take the Laya Gasa trek, but turn north at Laya and head for Masa Gang: another spectacular peak overlooking a high valley, with plenty of options for side hiking. We debated a bit more: were we proverbially biting off more than we could swallow? But, will we ever go back again? Would be sorry to not have pushed our perceived limits? And, what if one of us was having a problem with the altitude? How would that affect us? History shows that we really don’t repeat trips to countries we have visited. (With the exception of Sardinia – but we have near-familial ties there.) So, making the assumption that we may not return to Bhutan, and that we are the masters of our own fitness preparations, we said, “Yes!”

Our Jomolhari-Laya-Gasa trek was planned for 17 days, beginning with three days of acclimatization hikes, and including three days for our Masa Gang excursion. Once we had this decision made, all the other parts began to fall into place. Now we needed to pull together our fitness plans, and boot break-in hikes.

Bhutan Planning Resources

Great Tiger Mountain at Limithang camp

Great Tiger Mountain at Limithang camp

The sheer lack of publications to be found about Bhutan was attractive to us. Yes, Lonely Planet has a guide, but we better enjoyed the Footprint guide penned by Bhutanese native Gyurme Dorje. Because we expected to trek the majority of our time in Bhutan, perhaps the most indispensable was the Cicerone Bhutan: A Trekker’s Guide, by Bart Jordans.

Online resources also helped:

Tourism Council of Bhutan

Because you must book all travel through a government-registered tour operator, Trip Advisor: Bhutan forums were of great help in sorting out tour company and guide services.

But, once we chose a tour operator, our contacts at the company were the most invaluable in answering our 237,459 questions about the trip. After initially sending queries to four or five tour operators, we chose the operator who we felt “got” us: they had read our query, and made suggestions on potential itineraries based on our expressed interests, and not just suggest some standard itinerary that the company operated. Our heartfelt thanks go to Naomi at Blue Poppy Tours & Treks, who walked us through each step of the trip planning, and owner Choki Dorji for personally greeting us the first day we arrived. We felt very privileged to have Rinzin Dorji as our personal guide in Bhutan, as well as our drivers and trekking crew – all making sure that we had a once-in-a-lifetime experience during our 25 days in Bhutan.

But, there’s more about that to come…

Why We Chose Bhutan

Approaching Drukyuel on Laya-Gasa trek

Approaching Drukyuel on Laya-Gasa trek

We’ve dreamed about the Himalaya since we’ve been able to pour over our parents’ National Geographic magazines: a wondrous, magical place with the highest mountains in the world, unusual wildlife, and cultures very different from our western upbringing. As far as we were concerned, it could be the Moon: it seemed just as exotic and hard to get to.

As we got older, we saw the organized tour groups to Bhutan, with a hefty price tag. As we have learned from our travels, we are willing to put in the hours to plan our own trip, and reduce the cost, as well as the potential for incompatible travel companions. As a result, we often head for the path less taken. If we can find tons of information about a particular destination, then maybe this is not the spot for us. In the case of traveling to the Himalaya, we assessed our safety, as well as a reasonable expectation for a one-of-a-kind experience, that our precious vacation time and dollars are well spent. We expect to immerse ourselves into the place, and not just get the tour bus version of scenery and culture.

With these vague hopes/expectations, we knew that we wanted a trekking experience.Our focus went to Nepal and Bhutan. While many have traveled to Nepal, Bhutan has only recently opened itself up to the western world, and we wanted to be there before the culture had been altered by electricity, cash and satellite television. The Chinese control of Tibet contributed to some discomfort about the certainty of the trip. So, Bhutan it was.

NGS Perspective on Bhutan – 100 Years Ago

Bhutan - 100 years ago

Bhutan – 100 years ago

A trip we have dreamed for years and planned for 13 months is here in nearly two weeks.

How timely the National Geographic should re-post their perspective on Bhutan, first published 100 years ago. Scrolling through the 100-year-old photos, some could easily be the same scenes today. We are excited to visit this country, trying to hold on to their culture, while the modern world intrudes on their traditional ways of life.